A Birdbrained Library Heist Is Suffused With Irony In 'American Animals'

May 31, 2018
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On December 17, 2004, four young men stole books and manuscripts valued at more than three quarters of a million dollars from a Kentucky college library's rare book collection. Their heist is dramatized in Bart Layton's new film "American Animals." It's a blend of fiction and documentary, using actors and onscreen interviews with the story's actual participants. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The heist movie "American Animals" opens with a cutesy title. This is not based on a true story. Then the words not based on disappear, leaving - this is a true story. I doubt any fiction writer could have dreamed up a heist so dumb, stealing the original of Audubon's multivolume "Birds Of America" from the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky. The movie is funny in spots, but it's not a comedy. The British writer-director Bart Layton has set out to explore the cultural underpinnings of a particular American brand - a birdbrain. The heist was executed in 2004 by four middle class suburban college students and grads - young men, we're told in on-screen interviews with their real parents, who'd never been in trouble with the law.

The likeably raw, young Irish actor Barry Keoghan plays Spencer Reinhard, who actually has artistic talent, and on a library tour is mesmerized by Audubon's book. But it's Warren Lipka, played by Evan Peters, who decides that they and two others should disguise themselves as elderly scholars, taze the librarian, snatch "Birds Of America" plus a first edition of Darwin's "On The Origin Of Species" and find a buyer through a fence in Amsterdam. Why? That's something even the real four have trouble answering in interviews that pepper the movie between the fictionalized scenes in which their younger selves do stakeouts, make charts and watch such films as Kubrick's "The Killing" and "Reservoir Dogs," a DVD shelf of American robber archetypes. You can hear how movies saturate their lives when in a restaurant, Warren works his weird magic on another student, Eric Borsuk, played by Jared Abrahamson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN ANIMALS")

EVAN PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) Hey.

JARED ABRAHAMSON: (As Eric Borsuk) What's up, man? What's with all the mystery?

PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) I'm here to talk to you about something deadly serious.

ABRAHAMSON: (As Eric Borsuk) I figured you must want something.

PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) Actually, I came to offer you something.

ABRAHAMSON: (As Eric Borsuk) Oh, really?

PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) Yeah.

ABRAHAMSON: (As Eric Borsuk) Yeah?

PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) There's no one else I could trust with this. You're either in or you're out, right now.

ABRAHAMSON: (As Eric Borsuk) How can I tell you if I'm in or I'm out without you telling me the first thing about what I might be in or out of?

PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) I would just need you to say in principle - OK - because this might be something not exactly legal. And there's a chance that we would have to leave everything behind.

ABRAHAMSON: (As Eric Borsuk) OK. When you say not legal....

PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) I'm going to say this one time and one time only. You're either in or you're out. Right now.

ABRAHAMSON: (As Eric Borsuk) I'm going to need more than this one.

PETERS: (As Warren Lipka) Not until you commit. This would be something dangerous and very exciting that I need you to be a part of. This could change everything. This is your red pill or blue pill moment, my friend.

EDELSTEIN: Evan Peters' Warren is a magnetic sociopath, the linchpin of "American Animals." But he wouldn't sway Spencer, Eric or the jock Chas Allen played by Blake Jenner if they weren't vulnerable. In the words of one of the real parents, everything in our family was geared for our kids to be successful. And you can feel the anxiety that sentiment generates in young men without clear paths toward success.

The turning point comes at an outdoor frat party when Spencer says, ever feel like you're waiting for something to happen but don't know what it is? And Warren says, by stealing those books, they'll rise above the pack or flock or whatever animal metaphor you can think of. The film has many including beavers, as in Warren's exhortation - if you don't do this thing, one day you'll wake up wondering who you might have been if you hadn't beavered away your life. It's a nice sight gag when a shopping cart some frat boys set alight sails across the screen behind them. In one shot, you get toxic masculinity, peer pressure and a nihilistic vision of American capitalism.

Writer-director Bart Layton uses a lot of cinematic tricks to pump up "American Animals," and it often feels like an exercise in ironic style. It doesn't have the emotional fullness of a major work. There's no point where you get carried away by the scheme. You're always ahead of the characters, thinking - idiots. And idiots just aren't that compelling. But in the last act, the tone changes, and the film becomes impressive. Ann Dowd as librarian B.J. Gooch doesn't gracefully swoon after she's hazed but weeps and pleads, the camera tight on her face. B.J. doesn't get this is supposed to be like a movie. And suddenly, Spencer, Eric and Chas - if not Warren, who's fine being mean - get that it's not a movie too.

Eventually, they want out so badly that they sabotage themselves at every turn like a dope's version of "Crime And Punishment." Warren's red-pill-blue-pill line in the scene we heard alludes, of course, to "The Matrix." And though he's not explicit, my guess is Layton thinks modern American animals live in a Matrix-like menagerie, rendered weak and incompetent by fantasies of wealth and fame. That one of the books they made it out of the library with is Darwin's "On The Origin Of Species" is a nasty irony in a tale of de-evolution.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.